Students hope for change on campus through new discussion site
UPDATE TO THIS ARTICLE: The discussion.mit.edu moderators have asked that community members not visit the site until its official release next week. The moderators have also decided, after consulting with clinicians, that anonymous posters discussing mental health will need to make their identities known to the moderators.
A group of students are launching a new Reddit-style discussion website next week with the hope of giving the MIT community a platform to discuss important issues on campus.
The website, discussion.mit.edu, uses Reddit’s source code, but will require users to log in with Touchstone, so people without MIT credentials will not be able to access it.
The site’s moderators hope to be able to direct administrators to popular discussion threads and convince them not only to read the links but to interact directly with the site.
The site was created by Allan E. Sadun ’17, Caroline H. Mak ’18, Renee H. Bell G, Leo R. de Castro ’18, and Connor V. Duffy ’17, with Mitchell Gu ’18 taking lead on the technical work. They also worked with Sean P. Preston at MIT IS&T and Ingrid Vargas in the chancellor’s office.
One of the main purposes of the site is to “effect change,” Bell said.
The site functions almost exactly as Reddit does. So far, it consists of four subreddits: general, mental health, academics, and campus life. Users will be able to create new subreddits; however, these subreddits will not be included on the main navigation bar or in the email digests.
The email digests, which will be sent to subscribers on firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, will feature a daily or weekly selection of new activity on the website. Sadun said he thought the digests would be the website’s “main vehicle for long-term survival.” If an important issue is being discussed on the site, subscribers will “be able to know that it’s happening.”
Sadun, Mak, Bell, de Castro, and Duffy will be the first moderators of the site, although if they notice that the need arises, they will accept applications for additional moderators. The moderators aim to be as uninvasive as they can. “We don’t want to be fascist [or] draw attention to ourselves,” Sadun said. However, they have the power to remove posts and comments, although they will try to give users explanations for such removals.
The moderators also mentioned that they would like to host AMAs on the site in the future, featuring administrators and people on campus with interesting experiences.
One major difference from Reddit is that users must post under their own name. Accounts are linked to each user’s Kerberos. Sadun said he thinks disallowing anonymity will help discourage trolling by “making people realize this is a serious forum.” He added that he thought that “when people have something to say, and it’s reasonably thought out, they’re not afraid to put their name behind it.” When asked if he anticipated that this rule would inhibit people from posting, he described it as “a trade-off that had to be made” and said he hoped that the site “would be sufficiently popular that we can take the hit from no anonymity.”
The one exception to the rule of no anonymity is that, in order to protect people’s privacy, there will be an anonymous form to submit stories about mental health-related topics.
The original idea for discussion.mit.edu sprung from the This is the East Side website (ec.mit.edu/culture). On this site, residents of East Campus, Random Hall, Senior Haus, and Bexley shared their experiences with their living groups. One of the its purposes was to help the then-new chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88 understand the perspectives of these residents, whose views often happened to be at odds with the administration’s.
People realized, according to Sadun, that stories of their living groups were “far from the most powerful stor[ies] people can tell; in fact [they’re] probably not even the most important kind of stor[ies] people can tell”.
The discussion.mit.edu website went through many different iterations before it reached its current form.
“It became sort of a running joke for me, who had been with the project from the beginning,” Sadun said, “that someone would email the chancellor with an idea which would be very similar to the one we were ostensibly working on but really slacking off on.” Various groups had meetings and either merged or failed to merge. This was how Mak joined the project. Co-president of Peer Ears, she was interested in mental health issues on campus, and she and a friend took their own website idea to the chancellor and ended up successfully merging with Sadun’s team.
Sadun said he thinks the big question is why a website would be better than a mailing list. In fact, back in the 1990s, there was a mailing list called firstname.lastname@example.org where students would discuss campus issues. So his answer to the question is that he believes a “big innovation in communication” that has happened since then is Reddit.
Will the site take off? The moderators don’t know. “If the site launches and nobody uses it, we can move on. We’re not trying to do this to promote ourselves, we just think this is a tool the community can [use].”